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Australian Man’s Jail Sentence for Writing Critical Letter to Pakistan Military a ‘Torment’ for Family

The incarceration of a Pakistani-Australian man in a high security Pakistani prison has been a “torment” for his ageing parents, his family says.

Hasan Askree, 53, was sentenced to five years in prison in 2020 for writing a critical letter to a military official, a case his family says is opaque and constitutes a grave miscarriage of justice.

In 2015, the dual Pakistani-Australian national left Sydney, where he worked for American Express, and travelled to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad to care for his unwell mother.

While living in Pakistan in 2020, Askree, the son of a former two-star general in the Pakistani military, wrote several critical letters to senior military officials. In one letter, sent to the then chief of army staff, Qamar Javed Bajwa, he criticised

Bajwa’s polices, his perceived closeness to then prime minister Imran Khan, and his acceptance of an extension to his service as army chief. Askree also told Bajwa to resign.

Askree sent copies of letters to senior generals in Pakistan’s politically powerful military.

The precise contents of the letters have not been released publicly. Bajwa – a controversial army chief – has since retired. The military under his command was accused of rigging the 2018 elections which brought Imran Khan to power. The military denied trying to influence the election.

In October 2020, Askree was arrested at his home in Islamabad and, despite being a civilian, was charged and tried in a court martial for “abetting a mutiny”. His letters were deemed a subversion and an incitement against the military’s leadership.

Askree is currently being held in the high security Sahiwal prison in the Punjab province of Pakistan.

After two years of quietly advocating for his release, Askree’s family held a press conference in Islamabad last month, condemning his treatment as a grave miscarriage of justice.

“It is as though the aim is not just to punish Hasan but to torment our family, too … so it would serve as a lesson for all for never speaking up for your country,” the family said.

Askree’s father, retired Maj Gen Syed Zaffar Mehdi Askree, said his son had not received a fair trial, and that his family had never received a copy of the charges or verdict, despite repeated requests.

Two years ago, Maj Gen Askree wrote to the Islamabad high court seeking his son’s release from prison. He said his son had only written to Bajwa “a few times to express his discontent with the functioning of the armed forces”.

“The letters express criticism on certain polices of the current regime of army. In essence, the letters, strongly worded though they may be, merely illustrate the disillusionment of a citizen who is using the letters to state his disapproval of certain actions and policies of a state institution,” the letter to the court says.

The retired officer’s petition to the court said none of his son’s correspondence was derogatory, nor had it encouraged or incited the overthrow of the democratically elected government.

“Instead, the intention behind the letters is to highlight the deficiencies in the existing state of affairs.”

Akree’s sister Zehra Mehdi told the ABC in Australia this week that when her brother was initially taken and placed into military custody they did not know where he was, and could not communicate with him.

“It was so stressful that every minute seemed like ages passing, until we could figure out whether he was even alive.” She said the case against him was opaque and the process was irregular. “I just feel they are just trying to stop his voice.”

Askree’s mother is seriously ill, and cannot travel to visit him in prison, the family told the press conference. Despite a court order to transfer Askree to a Rawalpindi jail closer to the family’s Islamabad home, the military is yet to move him.

Australia’s high commission has raised Askree’s situation with the Pakistan government on “up to 20 occasions”, Guardian Australia understands.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed it was providing consular assistance to a detained Australian.

“We acknowledge the ongoing distress to his family his detention has caused.

“Officials at our high commission in Islamabad continue to raise his case with the government of Pakistan. Dfat will continue to provide consular assistance for as long as required.”

Pakistan’s justice system was ranked 129th out of 140 countries by the World Justice Project last year, and fifth of six countries in South Asia, above only Afghanistan.

The 2022 Human Rights Watch report alleged government officials in Pakistan have harassed, and at times persecuted, human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists who criticise government officials and policies. Draconian laws around sedition and counter-terrorism are used to repress dissent, the report said.

Source : The Guardian